September 17, 2008
Vol: 15 No: 39


Fifty million Indian women missing

via: Ciara Leeming, Street News Service

An author starts her own campaign to tally the consequences of gender-based violence.

Social outcasts after their husbands die, the widows of Vrindavan come to the supposed home of the Hindu god Krishna to eke out a living, singing devotional songs in exchange for food. An estimated 15,000 widows live in such circumstances on the northern India city's streets. Photo by Claude Renault.

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It’s a crisis that could hold devastating consequences. Some 50 million women are claimed to be “missing” from India’s population, victims of a culture where boys are valued and girls considered worthless.

Selective abortions and female infanticide are two of the tactics some Indian families are willing to use to ensure they get that prized male child and avoid the future expense of a daughter’s dowry. Add to that high mortality rates of girls under five, staggering maternal mortality rates, and dowry and honor killings, and you have all the ingredients of a population increasingly skewed toward men.

Even for those women who do survive, life is not always easy. Many are forced to marry young and go through many pregnancies and abortions. And elderly women and widows are increasingly turned out onto the street as traditional extended families are breaking down.

Amazingly, the situation barely warrants a mention in the country’s media—only passing references to its “plummeting gender ratio.” But one woman is now attempting to harness the power of social networking and the photograph to take the issue global and put pressure on India’s authorities to act.

Rita Banerji, a writer and photographer from Calcutta, is using the image-sharing website Flickr as a springboard for her “50 Million Missing” campaign, which uses powerful pictures of Indian women to spread its message. Users of the site—who include amateur and professional photographers—submit pictures to the group, which features debates, links and a petition. Users from across the world have already uploaded more than 10,000 pictures of women and girls from all sections of Indian society—from street vendors, laborers and homeless women to glamorous portraits of women in fashion. There are plans to turn the initiative into a non-governmental organization.

Banerji, whose soon-to-be-published book on the subject, Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin), warns the crisis could plunge India into chaos in years to come unless something is done. She says: “The question of women’s survival is one of the biggest challenges to India today. The way it stands, India’s social and cultural mechanisms are geared toward selectively weeding out women and girls en masse.

“Women in this country are lucky to escape being killed at almost every stage of their life—as a fetus, as an infant, as a little girl, a bride, a mother, and even a widow.”

More than a million female fetuses are aborted in India every year. In some villages in the northeastern state of Bihar, midwives admit to being paid by families to kill almost half the girls they help deliver. It is estimated there are as many as 25,000 dowry-related murders of young married women within the first seven years of their marriage. UNICEF revealed last year that the mortality rate for girls aged under five is more than 40 per cent higher than boys of the same age. One Indian woman dies every five minutes due to pregnancy-related complications, and honor violence is common in rural areas.

Banerji believes such problems are rooted in cultural attitudes. “These are all essentially different facets of a single system that is nonchalantly feeding the same thing: the extermination of females,” she says.

“The value system is saying we don’t want daughters, and that the lives of girls and women are easily dispensable. There is no other group—religious, ethnic or otherwise—whos-e continued existence is so casually dismissed.

“Ultimately, this is about a system that engenders female genocide. It is a massive, irreversible humanitarian crisis, and a very disgraceful failure of law and order.”

A country in which millions of men have no access to a potential partner is one where women are going to suffer from sexual exploitation and abuse.

“In this kind of environment there is bound to be an uncontainable eruption of sexual perversion, sexual predation and violent sex crimes,” she says.

“Already, we are seeing a thriving domestic flesh trade in this country. Women are being bought or kidnapped and then sold as ‘brides’ in states where the gender ratio is so dismal that men cannot find women to marry.

“Many of these families have multiple sons—but cannot afford to ‘buy’ a wife for each of them. So they buy one ‘bride’ and have all the men in the family share her. Some of the reports we are getting on these women are unimaginably grotesque. They live like virtual domestic and sexual slaves. Many try to run away, and others commit suicide.”

Misogyny is a long-standing problem in Indian society. Hymns in the Vedas—an ancient Hindu text—refer to female infanticide, suggesting the practice had some religious significance.

Sati—the burning alive of a widow on her husband’s pyre—was also a religious ritualization of female homicide. Now outlawed, it is known to persist in some parts of the country.

When the British did some of the first census studies in India in the late 19th century, they found that some of the villages in the Kuri Mar—the so-called daughter killer belt—had no female children, and in some areas were missing almost 40 per cent of the female population. Female infanticide was and continues to be rampant, and each region has its own culture-specific method of killing.

“When homicide assumes the guise of custom or tradition it is most dangerous and difficult to deal with—because it means that the community has made this psychologically permissible,” says Banerji. “I’d say the reason female genocide exists now in India is because it always did in some form or another—there is a permissivness, a social allowance that conveniently stretches its moral boundaries and perverts law and order to accommodate female genocide in its various forms.”

Studies show the highest rates of selective abortion are found among the wealthiest classes, who can afford the medical expenses involved. Dowry murders occur across all classes and religions. Even expatriate Indian communities in the UK, Canada, and the U.S. show highly distorted gender ratios.

Last year, researchers at Oxford University found that 1,500 girls were “missing” from the birth statistics of British Indian women since 1990. And a BBC investigation found many British-born Indians are travelling to the country for selective abortions.

Banerji is convinced the problem is growing worse. New technologies allow doctors to selectively abort female fetuses. Gender detection kits can be bought online and techniques are being developed—aimed at the Indian market—that could prevent the conception of female fetuses altogether. And as Indian society becomes richer, dowry demands are getting bigger—putting families off having girls and leading to dowry-related murders.

The social networking aspect of Flickr is the ideal place for this kind of campaign, says Banerji.

“A poster on the wall or a T-shirt can evade the eye—you look at it and walk by. But someone sticks a code in your comment box and says we love this picture and think you ought to add this to our campaign pool—there is something personal and compelling in that.”

“More so because the Flickr setup is interactive,” she says—anyone can join the group, post a picture, pose a question, or join in a discussion. “And as one browses the photo gallery it is meant to serve as a powerful visual reminder of the fact that millions of other women and girls in India were not allowed to live.”

Banerji and her supporters plan to introduce ground projects that provide legal and medical aid to victims of gender violence, and to run educational programs. But ultimately, the group aims to spark the debate that is vital if the denial and defensiveness within Indian society is to be defeated. Many people do not realize or refuse to believe that the gender ratio even exists, and those who do often try to defend the status quo.

Sadly, she says, persuasion alone will never work.

“The government must act urgently. It must pull the reins on its administrative wings and implement its laws forcefully and effectively.

“Until now, the government’s response has been to simply pass some laws and show little or no initiative in their proper implementation. But most people realize they can violate laws, bribe authorities, intimidate people, and even get away with murder—because they see others doing it too.

“Silence allows this to persist. That’s why it’s very important to bring this issue in the limelight and for people the world over to join in this effort to compel the Indian government to take responsibility. What is strictly illegal in time also becomes immoral.”



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